“Live music, but don’t have it loud?”: UK venues react to the latest performing arts guidance

Gigs are back (kind of)! The Government has issued guidelines to make gigs 'viable' – but what do grassroots music folk make of it all?

The Government recently issued a new set of guidelines to help venues of all kinds bring back life performance – with new advice out there for theatres, concert-halls, and other live music venues. After months of being unable to safely put on gigs, it’s a welcome shuffle forward. Slowly, a few gigs are returning with caution: in recent weeks, Sam Fender has played a socially distanced arena show at the custom-built Virgin Money Unity Arena, and Frank Turner serenaded a seated crowd in south London.

Further research into how COVID-19 is transmitted has shaped these guidelines: a new study at the University of Bristol found that the volume may be a huge factor in how risky a performance is. An artist singing in a low whisper backed by an acoustic guitar has a far lower aerosol transmission than an opera singer belting their lungs out alongside an army of clarinets blasting out hot air (aerosol transmission is essentially just a fancy way of describing airborne spit, FYI).

Besides recommending that performing arts venues introduce things such as one-way systems, staggered arrival times, and separate distanced bubbles within venue crews, the guidelines also advise organisers to take steps to “avoid audiences needing to unduly raise their voices to each other, such as shouting, chanting and singing along.” Dancing is basically out of the question, and your favourite venue won’t be blasting ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ between sets any time. Performances, for the time being, will need to be quieter affairs.

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The question is, how do UK venues feel about the latest guidelines? Is live music back – or just some live music? We got a few of them on the blower to find out.

Brudenell Social Club, Leeds

The Brudenell Social Club, Leeds
Credit: Visionhaus/Getty Images

Nathan Clark, venue owner: “I feel it’s a simple contradiction: ‘have live music, but don’t have it loud’. The main pillars of live music are social interaction, enjoyment, and emotional attachment. What they’re asking [audiences] to do is to sit there quietly, detach your emotions and don’t get involved. The artist has to mute their expressions. Either allow it when it’s safe and responsible to do so, or don’t allow it. Like a lot of the other messaging it’s very ambiguous. The amount of customers I’ve had saying to me: ‘Oh, but we can have gigs on again’. Clearly we can’t. As a venue, you have the public and the performers and everyone to think about in your risk assessment. A responsible person right now would say if these are the guidelines, we need to not do certain things.

“And turning the volume down won’t work for some genres. It’s great if you want to be an ambient acoustic guitarist that has no vocals, but that doesn’t work for Fontaines DC. As a venue, a lot of the guidelines are very hard to enforce. You can do your best with signs, and having security briefing people when they come in: you can even put in place measures like a red and yellow card, a bit like football, for if people do something against the rules. But at what point in a quiet show, with nobody raising their voice, would you even go up and ask somebody to leave without affecting the ambience? You can’t. The enforcement also affects the whole experience.

“It comes down to this: one size cookie cutter does not fit all – putting in a broad brushstroke approach for everyone doesn’t work. You have to kind of just sigh, and think: we’ll just do our best in terms of what is safe, and when. Do we have a date in mind? No. We just need some guidance that allows us to do it properly, with a road map so that people know when it’s safe.”

Thekla, Bristol

Alex Black, General Manager: “Any step towards a return for live music is positive; we’re moving in the right direction. I think the concern is that [the Government] can put some crazy regulations in place and tick that box saying live music is back up and running. In reality, that’s far from the truth. We’ve just started to think about live music, and we’re leaning more towards acoustic stuff, for two reasons. Firstly, it negates a lot of the issues with people being too vocal, too many wind instruments [laughs] – all these things. There’s also the fact that it has to be seated – relaxed acoustic music lends itself more to that environment. You can’t really have a moshpit when everyone’s sat on tables and chairs.

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“We’ve been one of the lucky ones, really – our venue was never designed to be a venue in the first place. It’s a boat, so it has a lot of corridors that lend themselves to a one-way system. It’s something we tend to encourage anyway during busy nights, to help with the flow of the venue. We’re hoping we can get about 40 people in for a live gig. That’s about 10% of our usual capacity.

“I don’t really know what to say in terms of stopping people from singing along – one of the joys of live music is how people experience it. If you’re going to sit there with your hands folded, you may as well watch a DVD.

“Saying that, we’ve found that our customers to be really respectful of the rules – they want gigs to come back, and venues to reopen. And the venues also need customers to get on board with it, to make it work. It is going to be weird – it’s weird for us and the bands, too. but if people can accept it, for now, and come and enjoy a sit-down gig, the sooner toes are dipped in the water, and live music can continue to come back.

The Lexington, London

The Lexington
The Lexington Credit: Press

Marcus Harris, promoter: “Anything that moves things forward is positive: but where things currently are, I don’t feel like these guidelines are applicable to many grassroots music venues. It’s all well and good to see socially distanced arena shows, but it’s also important to remember that it isn’t sustainable for the whole industry. Huge artists who can play shows of that scale need to start somewhere, and they start at the level of The Lexington and [other London venues] Moth Club, The Victoria, Shacklewell Arms.

We’ve plotted different levels of distancing at The Lexington. With two metres in place, our capacity is 15 people in the gig room, and smaller audiences like that aren’t financially viable for us. A lot of it is very hard for us to implement. The guidance says that the sound engineer should be kept separate from the artist, but here a huge part of their job is working directly with the band to get the stage set-up. They’ll need to go on stage if something goes wrong. We also can’t really implement one-way-systems: there’s only one entrance up to our venue, up a flight of stairs. How do people go up and come down safely?

The general guidance talks about low volumes and discouraging chanting and singing along and I think that’s an unrealistic expectation for any kind of rock gig. Who polices it? It puts any venue in an extremely difficult position. We’d have to hire an extra member of security, and it’s not a practical way to run a business that already runs on really fine margins as it is. We’re not really going to be functional for a long time; not until there’s more relaxed social distancing in place. I think the Government needs to understand that. We’re prepared to wait until it’s safe, but our industry still has to be there in order to come back again.”

EartH, Hackney. Credit: Getty

Village Underground and EartH Hackney, London

Matthew Cook, Music Programmer at both venues: 

“My main issue with the guidelines is the financial viability of operating at a reduced capacity. Anything less than 80 per cent capacity will make the show unviable. Promoters will not be able to book a show into a venue that loses money for everyone. Can you imagine an agent agreeing an offer that effectively means an artist has to pay to play a gig? Me neither.

Many of the guidelines are more relevant to outdoor events and those with allocated seating. Many of my colleagues in the industry feel that there is a lack of understanding or care about grassroots music. The type of gigs experience we present is one of wild, raucous, sweaty abandon. It’s not all about Glyndebourne or The Proms, which I fear is most politicians’ frame of cultural reference. Grassroots music is an often undervalued cultural experience and I worry we are very low down on the list of priorities, making an entire industry vulnerable to collapse.

We are doing our best to innovate, with a pop-up bar and new business model. We have to be optimistic; there’s no alternative. At Village Underground and EartH we have been incredibly busy remodelling: with VU opening as a bicycle park by day and pop-up bar on the weekends. Both venues are experimenting with new booking models, such as hosting two shows per day and live streaming (we did a show with The Streets) and setting up our Crowdfunder campaign.

Without subsidy, our future is unviable. It’s as simple as that. The damage done to the touring economy is already insurmountable without support far and beyond a furlough scheme. Furlough expires in September, leaving our staff without a wage and us unable to trade as a business. The 1.5 billion released by the Government has been allocated to the Arts Council now, and we have applied for a grant along with everyone else.

A grant could save us – or buy us time – so we are hopeful, but our future is hanging in the balance.”

You can support UK venues by donating to Music Venue Trust’s Save Our Venues campaign

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